RIOT anniversary brings call for action

Monday, June 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ In a church built upon the ashes of the 1921 Tulsa race riot, blacks and whites welcomed steps toward reconciliation Sunday but spoke of the need for something more.

Those in the packed pews of Mount Zion Baptist Church broke into applause when about a dozen elderly riot survivors stood at a ceremony marking the 80th anniversary of the attack on the city's black neighborhoods.

``No, I wasn't here,'' state Sen. Kelly Haney, D-Seminole, said in honoring the survivors. ``But we are brothers and sisters, and we want you to know how sorry we are that this ever happened.''

In May, the Oklahoma Legislature for the first time officially acknowledged one of the nation's worst acts of racial violence.

The Legislature approved a bill aimed at revitalizing the historically black Greenwood District, which was laid to waste in the May 31, 1921, attack. Lawmakers also set up a scholarship fund intended to help college-bound descendants of riot victims and appropriated $750,000 for the planning of a riot memorial.

Gov. Frank Keating told the crowd the memorial will do more than remember the violence and those who died.

``It is a firm commitment that this will not recur,'' he said.

The new legislation includes an unprecedented confession, noted Sen. Maxine Horner, D-Tulsa, a member of the Legislature's black caucus. She said it makes Oklahoma the first state to admit that the root cause for the violence resided in the state's Jim Crow laws and other actions designed to put down blacks.

Actions in the Legislature have touched off a new private effort to see what role the business community might play in reconciling the riot, said John Gaberino, chairman of the Metropolitan Tulsa Chamber of Commerce. A chamber review of a state commission's report on the riot is under way.

Others spoke of walls that remain, including a lack of action by city or county governments on the unaddressed issue of reparations to survivors.

The Legislature's actions have brought the city to the ``cusp of reconciliation,'' said George Henderson, a civil rights scholar at the University of Oklahoma. ``I don't believe God brought Tulsa this far to leave the race riot in the category of unfinished business.''

He said it's time to decide fair compensation for the survivors and for the city to also contribute funds to the reconciliation effort. But he said those in attendance also must act on their own to bridge the city's racial divide.

``I pray, through our actions, the ghosts of Greenwood will one day rest in peace,'' he said. ``Let it be one day this year.''

There have been estimates that as many as 300 people were killed during the riot.

The fighting broke out after shots were exchanged between a white lynch mob and blacks trying to protect the intended target _ a shoeshiner accused of assaulting a white woman. The shoeshiner was never prosecuted.

Lawmakers presented Oklahoma Medals of Distinction to survivors during a reception Sunday.

Otis Clark, 98, described being forced to flee for his life after seeing a friend shot in the hand as the violence began. His return a few days later came as a shock.

``When we got to Tulsa, everything was burned down,'' he said. ``We was, what you might say, in bad shape.''